International Women's Day

Just when Erica Gavel wanted to quit, her sporting career rocketed

On International Women's Day, Erica Gavel shares how sport took her life in a completely different direction she could have imagined at a young age.

Young girls are dropping out of sport, missing opportunities they don't even know exist

Erica Gavel played as a guard for the University of Saskatchewan Huskies before a litany of injuries pushed her to try wheelchair basketball. ((Canadian Paralympic Committee))

In a matter of two years, basketball player Erica Gavel tore her meniscus, fractured her foot, had meniscus surgery, broke her ankle, tore her meniscus again followed by another surgery, only to tear cartilage off her femur and tibia which ended her career.  

It's no wonder Gavel considered quitting sports. But it's a good thing she didn't. 

Since then, Gavel has travelled the world as a wheelchair basketball player on Canada's national team. And because she stayed in sport, she found a path to get her masters degree and Ph.D. Gavel now does research in sport science that will be used by athletes going to the Tokyo 2020 Games.

Gavel's story is an important one to tell, especially on International Women's Day when some shocking stats resurface about girls in sport. 

Like the fact 41 per cent of girls ages 3-17 don't participate in sport. Or for every boy that leaves sport in adolescence, two girls will leave. And when entering adolescence, girls' sport participation drops by 22 per cent and school sport participation drops close to 26 per cent. 

"I know how much sport has given me and I just think between those ages you really don't know what you're capable of," Gavel told CBC Sports. "And if girls are quitting sport between the ages of 3-17, they're missing out on opportunities they didn't even know existed."

Perspective from an all-female staff

Gavel got those aforementioned injuries during her time on the University of Saskatchewan's basketball team from 2010 to 2012. She was a highly sought-after recruit out of high school before becoming a guard on the Huskies.

It was after breaking her ankle and red-shirting her third year of university that Gavel's urge to quit was the strongest.

"I hit a point where I just thought it would be impossible to keep going," she said. "I think mentally I quit for a couple weeks."

But her support system, which included then-coach and current women's national team head coach Lisa Thomaidis, sport doctor Bruce Craven, and her all-female team staff helped her see it was still possible to play basketball again. And she made it back, only to experience her career-ending injury in 2012. That one was truly impossible to rebound from.

It was then she says here depression hit rock bottom, but her support system came back again, encouraging her to at least try wheelchair basketball. She was able to see new opportunities such as focusing on school and going to the Paralympics. Those small goals turned into representing Canada at Rio 2016, travelling to compete in countries such as Peru, China and the Netherlands and working on award-winning sport science research with the University of Toronto. 

Sports shapes possibilities 

"I don't think I would have the same approach to both sport and science if I hadn't played at the University of Saskatchewan for an all-female staff and had success," Gavel said. "I didn't realize it at the time but I think being in that type of environment made women in sport normal to me."

"It really wasn't until I [moved] to Toronto from Saskatoon that I realized, 'You know what? This actually isn't normal.'" 

Gavel wants Canada's education and national sport systems to do a better job of making sport more inclusive and appealing to young girls. Those early years were pivotal to Gavel, and her time in sport changed her life drastically. That's why seeing such low numbers of girls participating in sport makes her so disappointed.

"There are so many things you learn from being on a team [or] in sport that would be really hard to replicate during those years of your life," she said. "I think if someone feels like quitting, it's good to remember why you started,"

"And if you're not having fun with it and you want to quit, maybe seek out people who inspire you and motivate you to make you appreciate that again."

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